U.S. Embassy Port-au-Prince Officer Recalls Memories of Haiti Quake

Posted by Peter Kolshorn
July 13, 2010
People Gather Among Rubble and Flames in Port-au-Prince After Earthquake

More information:2010 Earthquake in HaitiAbout the Author: Peter Kolshorn serves as Deputy Regional Security Officer at U.S. Embassy Port-au-Prince in Haiti.

When the earthquake struck on January 12, I was at home. My house shook violently and things smashed to the floor as I ran to the door. Once outside, I saw that the guard of my house, Belfort, was very upset. I walked toward the street, and all I could see was dust and gasoline flowing down the road. The severity of the situation really hit me when I walked down the street to an embassy housing complex and saw a car in the driveway…but no house. I looked over the edge of the ridge and saw the crumbled remains of the house, and people buried in rubble. An embassy officer was buried up to her waist, face covered with dirt and blood and calling for help. To the left, a man tried to free himself from the rubble. Further to the left, an arm protruded from the wreckage. My head was spinning as I contemplated how I could get them out.

Belfort and I obtained a garden hose, tied it around a solid post, and using the hose descended toward the victims. My embassy colleague's husband had managed to free himself from the debris. He was barely recognizable and bleeding profusely, but we helped him get up to the flat land. Belfort and I then got to his wife. She was alert and speaking even though she had visible head injuries and a large block of concrete was crushing her leg. We moved the debris and used part of the hose and the wood as a splint for her leg. She was in obvious pain but was still able to make humorous comments. We carried her to the top of the ridge.

By this time, local doctors began treating the injured. I was nauseated from the gasoline fumes all over the street. The walking wounded appeared like shadows out of the dust. I made radio contact with my boss and asked for a vehicle to transport the injured. He stated that the road was blocked and that we should try to get to the ambassador's residence. Information began to flow in, both from the embassy radio and people on the street: the national palace, Hotel Montana, and the Caribbean market had all collapsed; roads were impassable; and embassy employees were unaccounted for. It was a nightmare.

After sunset a doctor told me that the victims needed urgent treatment. I made contact with a security specialist and told him of our situation. He said he had some security guards in a vehicle he would try to send. After what seemed like an eternity, the vehicle showed up down at the main road. We would have to move the patients on foot. We improvised and made stretchers out of an aluminum ladder and some metal gates. We secured the patients with belts and flexi-cuffs. Belfort, like most of the embassy guards, continued working even though they did not know whether their families were alive.

The trek down the hill seemed to take forever, as we moved slowly to avoid the injured and the dead who covered the road. Sounds of praying and screams of loss and pain filled the air. It was horrific. We heard the cries of children beneath the rubble; we stopped and with other survivors we managed to free one.

The route was almost impassable. Not only did collapsed buildings block the road, but it was dark and we were walking in an area where there were steep drops. Occasional aftershocks added to the sense of panic. Finally, seven hours after the earthquake, we got to the road and our transport. It was a moment of elation in the nightmare. We drove to Petionville, where a small clinic without supplies stayed open to assist the wounded. I found a doctor nearby and asked him to help. Leaving his family in the street, he went to the clinic and stabilized the victims. At dawn we got our patients to the embassy, and they were airlifted out for treatment. Then, the chaos really began back at the embassy.

Over the last six months, my colleagues and I in the Regional Security Office in Port-au-Prince have worked tirelessly to ensure the security of the embassy and its personnel. We had to rebuild our local guard force, which suffered numerous casualties, and they have had to deal with the psychological trauma of losing friends, families, and homes. But thanks to the efforts of my colleagues, both Haitian and American, we are back on track.

Comments

Comments

Eric
|
New Mexico, USA
July 12, 2010

Eric in New Mexico writes:

You did good Peter, real good.

Hope you colleague is back on her feet.

Having saved a few lives myself in the past (in completely different but very stressful circumstance), there's a permanent knowing which lends satisfaction that one has indeed made a difference in someone's life.

And no matter how much training or lack of it, one finds out what they are personally made of in such circumstance.

It takes a little time to decompress from it, and I know you and those you work with who were able to continue to man your posts never had the chance to for weeks on end after.

There may be those that say folks didn't do enough, fast enough or well enough, but they wern't there to see it up close and personal.

I wasn't either, but I'm under no illusions you'all went well above and beyond anything anyone might reasonably expect of you as individuals.

Give my best to Belfort, I hope he found his family safe when he was able to get home.

Thanks for the post,

EJ

Anna
|
District Of Columbia, USA
July 13, 2010

Anna in Washington DC writes:

Thank you for your posting and your efforts. Your actions, and those of your colleagues in Haiti, inspire me. Good luck as you continue in your work.

Rosemary
|
New Jersey, USA
July 28, 2010

Rosemary in New Jersey writes:

Every time I read about this quake, it breaks my heart. I lived there for ten years. I attended many parties at the house where Victoria DeLong was killed. I had such happy memories of that place, and now it is all so sad.

God bless everybody who had to go through this nightmare, and God give you strength!

Lee
August 7, 2010

Lee writes:

Thank you for saving the life of my friend.

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